Your Body Sings You!
By Jean McClelland
In her autobiography, “The Inner Voice,” the great American soprano Renee Fleming wonders how she can possibly describe to her readers what it means to sing, because, she writes, it is “mostly unconscious.” She is right. Singing, and our vocal production, rely on an exquisite psychological and physical coordination—an alignment of the inner muscles of the body, and a mind that is creative and open, improvisatory and allowing. Both work in harmony to connect us to our coordination and more profoundly, the essence of our being. This is the starting point for all work in the arts, breathing and the Alexander Technique (Full disclosure: I have been a teacher of the Technique for 30 years and a student for 40). We so often work on the wrong end of the spectrum. We try to “fix” our posture, fix our voices or even psychoanalyze what we feel is holding us back from fully expressing ourselves. But there truly is nothing we need to fix. The freedom we so long for already exists in us, and it is our job to get out of our way in order for the brilliance of our coordination to manifest. The work that we do together in Awakening Your True Voice gives you tools for a lifetime of exploration to help you open and free and gain strength in your body and voice.
In every class I teach, I start by explaining a bit about the anatomy and physiology of the inner muscular structure of the body. Deep within our trunk lie the psoas muscles. The psoas muscles intersect with the diaphragm at the solar plexus and form a dynamic synergy. These are involuntary muscles, which means that they are not under our conscious control. They “whisper” to us. We “intuit” them. I often tell students that there is a inner physical structure to their creativity and that our work in class is to bring that to consciousness. The psoas muscles are our “emotional response” muscles and they communicate eloquently to our diaphragm. Are you beginning to appreciate that singing is not something we “do” from our heads and throats? Perhaps I can help you understand this further by using my own singing and performance as an example.
In the early years of my career, I thought, like most beginning singers, that singing was something I needed to “do,” and certainly do right. I tried to “put” emotion into my singing—to emote—but that was neither freeing nor satisfying for me…or my audience. It was much more egocentric, but when you are young, it is bound to be so. As the years passed, and I grew both in my art and my understanding of breathing and body, I was able to let go of trying so hard; this allowed me to enter into a relationship with music. Now when I sing, my psoas muscles enliven, which in turn communicate to my diaphragm, and in the creative genius which is the human body, my diaphragm sustains a certain amount of air pressure in the lungs to vibrate my vocal cords. What an audience hears in my voice/sound is how I am living the music, and they are able to live music with me. All of this is what Renee Fleming means when she said it is “mostly unconscious.” “Singing” is a result of this great synergy between the psoas muscles and the diaphragm. It is this synergy that forms the physical and breath support for your body and voice and frees you and your imagination to produce voice. It is a great feeling to feel music flow through you. You feel totally energized and your audience does too. You also feel free, and your mind is present and focused on the music and not on the idea of singing. As the great Italian singing teacher Francesco Lamperti (1813-1892) wrote, “You do not sing yourself…your body sings you!”
I would like to share with you one of the mediations I use with every class to begin our work. I describe it as the basis of our work because it brings us into psycho-physical alignment, which is necessary for all the work that follows. I call it The Allowing Hand and it opens us in mind and body. Please do this meditation with a spirit of discovery. There is no need to get anything right; you are just exploring with a sense of play. If you incorporate the allowing way of thinking and working into your life, you will find that you stay present much more of the time, the world will seem much more alive and vivid, and you will also discover more ease in yourself, an essential first step in working with voice.
The Allowing Hand
Start by just observing how you are feeling. How is your breathing? Are there any areas of discomfort in your body? We hardly ever take the time to notice “how we are,” but this is necessary if we want to begin to improve our functioning. Sit comfortably upright in your chair by making sure that you are on your “sit bones,” the two pointy bottom bones of the torso. You may move your body so that your back is resting on the back of the chair, but make sure that you’re not slumping, and you are still on your sit bones. A small pillow behind your back might help you stay in this comfortably upright position. Your feet should rest on the ground. If your feet don’t reach the ground while you are sitting back on the chair, you will have to move forward a bit or place something under your feet. Remember, you can always add more support behind your back. In time your back muscles will get strong, but for now, don’t try to “sit up straight” without support. You will fatigue yourself, and then you will slump. Let your hands rest palms down on your legs.
Without thinking, take one of your hands and rub it on your leg as if I asked you to tell me what the material of your clothing feels like. Chances are you might say it feels “smooth,” “rough,” etc. Notice how your hand is moving. Does it seem like you are pushing it? Now, pause for a moment and reframe the direction. Instead of trying to feel the material, allow your leg and your clothing to come “up” into your hand. Then, guiding yourself with the direction to “allow the material to come up into your hand,” let your hand move. What do you notice? Is your hand moving more slowly? Do you feel confused or a bit self-conscious? Do you wonder what you’re “supposed to feel,” or are you enjoying the experience of sensing what is under your hand? Just notice everything. You may even find that your hand seems to be moving on its own. If this is so, you have just experienced how those involuntary muscles of coordination are moving your arm and hand—just as if you were a pianist or violinist or a great athlete! You have also just discovered “sensing” as opposed to “feeling.” Sensing is a much more immediate experience.
Move down to your feet, and sense the rise of the earth under your feet. Often when we try to be “grounded,” we instinctively push down into our legs and feet in order to try to “feel” the ground. There is no need to try to feel the ground; it is already there. We don’t have to do anything to register the slightest touch on our bodies; we sense it. Do you try to feel the breeze on your face or is it immediate? That is what sensing is, and it is the quality of awareness that we enter into when we practice having allowing feet and allowing hands. In fact, if we “try to feel” we will only create tension in our hands and feet which will throw off our sensory mechanism. As a way to practice and integrate allowing, try to bring this awareness into other activities in your daily life.
It’s quite fun to practice allowing feet when you are walking. As you sense the earth rising up under your feet you can begin to feel that the earth is moving you rather than your moving yourself. It feels quite magical, but it is truly just your coordination and inner muscles moving you, not you dutifully walking your legs from Point A to Point B. Practice holding your cell phone with an allowing hand. You will find that it will not only free your hand and wrist but also deepen your breathing. Imagine that!!
I cannot stress enough the benefits of this exercise. It is a way that I encourage you to work and think: allowing versus doing. An allowing mind is a creative mind. It is improvisational, free and open to possibilities. It is Miles Davis playing a solo, and it is Archimedes shouting “Eureka.” It is an “allowing” hand that I put on students when I teach the Alexander Technique. When I put a hand on a student, I am never trying to “fix” something in my student. I know that the body/mind has a great drive to go towards wholeness if I don’t interfere. If my hand is allowing, it will give my student the space to open. This is the hand you are learning to put on yourself.
© Jean McClelland 2020
Jean McClelland, is a renowned voice and Alexander Technique teacher, workshop leader and noted musical theater performer. She is currently on the faculty of the Graduate Department of Theater at Columbia University.